Buckwheat is a plant that originated from Asia, specifically China, used mainly as a cover crop to protect the soil from erosion, weeds, and pests. During the colonial era, the U.S. cultivated it mostly in the northeast and north-central regions as livestock feed and later made into flour. Today, much of its use revolves around food.
One application of buckwheat not many people know about, however, is as fillings for pillows. It isn’t anything new; the Japanese have been stuffing their pillows with buckwheat hulls as early as 600 years ago, which they call ‘sobakawa.’ The benefits range from reducing stress to the spine to being a sustainable material (more on these below).
These pillows may have come at the best time, amidst a sleep-deprived America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2016 released a report stating that more than one in three Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. The CDC also stresses the importance of getting at least seven hours of sleep every day; any less increases the risk of chronic diseases.
A more recent study, also by the CDC, ranked the most sleep-deprived cities in the country, starting with the frontrunner Detroit whose half of the population is sleep-deprived. Improving sleep habits can start from choosing the right bed and pillow to rest their weary bodies. Buckwheat pillows can be a step in the right direction, given the following benefits:
1. Reduces Back Pain
One South Korean study in 2019 found that buckwheat pillows performed better in reducing neck and shoulder pain than latex pillows (it also pointed out that both performed well in reducing pain). However, related studies regarding the benefits of buckwheat pillows to one’s back are still coming in, so any conclusive evidence is still up in the air.
Sussanna Czeranko, a naturopathic physician at Oregon’s National College of Natural Medicine, says that adequate support for the neck and cervical spine can help people sleep better. For a pillow to support the neck, it has to conform to and cushion it. As buckwheat hulls aren’t contiguous like latex or memory foam, they can displace easily as the user lays down his head.
A buckwheat pillow is right for people who tend to sleep on the side or back, although the loft may differ. Another beauty of having non-contiguous hulls as fillers is that users can adjust the amount, taking out or adding as much stuffing as desired anytime.
2. Mitigates Snoring
Snoring occurs when air passes through congested airways, which causes nearby tissues to vibrate. Though not all the time, snoring points to a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea. Treatment usually involves specialized devices or surgery, each expensive in its own right.
There’s also the peculiar fact that a snoring partner destroys marriages. In 2019, a survey of 2,000 people in the U.K. discovered that 12% said snoring was a reason for divorce, 18% said it caused frequent arguments at home, and 30% said they had to sleep in a separate room.
As mentioned previously, adequate support for the neck helps a great deal. Proper sleeping posture keeps the airways clear, which reduces snoring. By adjusting the amount of hulls inside the casing, a buckwheat pillow can achieve the ideal loft and ensure proper posture. The right loft depends on sleeping habits; for example, a medium loft works best for back sleepers (more on this below).
3. Weight Control
Let’s get one thing straight first: buckwheat pillows won’t make you lose weight—at least directly. The hulls aren’t edible, even if cleaned before being stuffed into pillowcases. They’re also too hard to chew raw.
However, scientists have made links between lack of sleep and obesity over the years. Dr. Kirsten Knutson, a pulmonary and critical care expert at the University of Chicago, said her study in 2012 revealed how lack of sleep impacts the part of the brain that regulates appetite. The hormones that increase appetite flood the brain, making a person eat more.
There’s no need to go into depth about how obesity has become a health concern in the U.S. Among the first steps to weight control involve getting enough sleep, which buckwheat pillows can help a great deal. Combine it with regular exercise and a balanced diet for the best effect.
A warm pillow may be comfortable in winter but not the summer, wasting hours of precious sleep. As a result, bed and pillow manufacturers have prioritized breathability in their products. Despite this, contiguous materials still restrict airflow to a degree.
Buckwheat pillows consist of hundreds, if not thousands, of hulls generated by milling. The casing is filled with enough hulls to allow displacement when the user lays his head down on the pillow. The formation creates countless cavities from which air can pass through, keeping one’s head cool even in the hottest months. Similarly, it also allows heat to pass.
The pillow’s design enhances its breathability. It incorporates a cotton interior casing holding the hulls and an exterior casing with mesh and laces. This video can give you an idea of what goes in a buckwheat pillow.
5. Lasts a Long Time
Buckwheat hulls are heavy, with a pillow at full capacity weighing more or less 10 lbs. Its weight is enough to tear a casing made with inferior materials and weak seams. Fortunately, manufacturers understand this and make the interior case as tough as possible using medium-duty cotton, durable zippers, and strong thread.
The hulls themselves, of course, will ultimately lose their shape and break down, making the pillow feel flat. Given proper care and use, the hulls can keep their integrity for several years before they start breaking down (most pillows need replacing every three years). But even then, crushed hulls aren’t entirely bad news.
Some still hang on to crushed buckwheat pillows, effectively giving them a sensation that’s similar to a millet pillow. While not as breathable, they’re lighter and less noisy due to the fine substance, which helps with deep sleep. If you still prefer buckwheat hulls, you can get new fillers at a brick-and-mortar or online store.
6. Ideal for Latex Allergies
Buckwheat-induced allergies are real, so a buckwheat pillow isn’t for everyone. On a related note, allergies caused by latex and synthetic fabric are not only real but more common.
Latex allergies affect around 4% of the global population but almost 10% of the world’s healthcare practitioners because they frequently use latex gloves. The allergic reactions usually take the form of red rashes and blisters, treatable with medication and a change of environment. That said, food allergies are way more frequent than fabric-induced ones.
Regardless, having alternatives for people with known latex allergies makes for sleepful nights. A buckwheat pillow can be just what the doctor ordered for them. Regularly washing the pillowcases can reduce the risk of other allergies triggering. However, don’t clean the buckwheat hulls, as they will lose their hardness when soaked.
7. Back Support While Working
You’re probably familiar with the importance of sitting straight, whether at home or in the office. The problem is that the human spine isn’t as straight as a highway; it has three natural curvatures around the neck, upper back, and lower back. Don’t slouch, but don’t force yourself to sit upright.
According to a 2006 study in the U.K., the sitting angle exerting the least strain on the back is 120 degrees or lower. Experts also recommended opening up the lower back curvature to maintain the spine’s natural shape. Placing a pillow on your lower back can help ease discomfort as you work.
Buckwheat pillows are sturdy enough to withstand the pressure of long hours of sitting in front of a computer. As mentioned earlier, they’re breathable and won’t feel too hot on the back. Of course, it won’t hurt to get up and move every 20 minutes.
8. Loft Adjustable
A buckwheat pillow’s loft is easily adjustable; take out or add as much of the filler as desired. The only way to adjust a latex or memory foam pillow’s loft is with constant use over its lifespan, given that the stuffing is inseparable.
The loft refers to how high or low the pillow is; having the wrong loft can strain the neck and cause health problems. A low loft is under 3 inches in height, a medium loft between 3 and 5 inches, and a high loft 6 inches and above. Some of the factors that can determine the ideal loft include sleeping position, head and body size, and pillow placement.
Buckwheat pillows are perfect for back and side sleeping, which are the two most typical positions. Stomach sleepers can adjust the pillow to a low loft for the ideal comfort. Make sure to have a jar or sack to store any excess hulls and keep them dry.
9. Cost-Effective Long Term
With prices playing between USD$50 and USD$150, buckwheat pillows are quite the investment. Collecting the organic buckwheat hulls and making the sturdy pillowcases to hold them add a few dollars to the price tag. However, considering the long-term benefits of having buckwheat pillows is just as important as the short-term.
With proper care, buckwheat pillows can be the last pillow you’ll ever own for a while. The hulls will break down with constant use but at a slow rate, and even then, some choose to continue using them as stuffing. Assuming your income is around the national average, you can quickly recover the cost of a buckwheat pillow or two.
More importantly, there’s no putting a price tag on the significance of sleep. Sleep deprivation can affect the human body in many ways, from ruining one’s focus to rendering it vulnerable to deadly diseases. Between a shocking medical bill and a pillow that helps you sleep seven hours a day, the choice should be clear.
10. Good for Mother Nature
Among the benefits listed so far, sustainability is perhaps the buckwheat pillow’s great asset. The hulls are materials left by dehulling buckwheat before milling (though some mills grind it with the hull still on). Because the hulls aren’t edible, they end up as filler for pillows and cushions, though not before undergoing cleaning for safety.
Buckwheat pillows are products of upcycling. And if upcycling has taught us anything, it’s that an upcycled material ends up far away from landfills. Despite dogged efforts to reduce landfill waste, over 140 million tons of material waste still ended up in landfills in 2018. Green advocates have been promoting upcycling as a means of reducing landfill waste.
The buckwheat hulls pillow manufacturers use must be free from pesticides and other chemicals, in which finding some isn’t a problem. Buckwheat is a hardy plant that’s hardly affected by pests; deer and turkey feed on them more often. That’s why growers barely use chemicals to protect their buckwheat—let alone herbicides, given the plants’ sensitivity to them.
Even after their lifespan, the hulls can be mixed into compost or refilled in other pillowcases. And as mentioned earlier, some opt to keep their buckwheat pillows even after the hulls have degraded.
The Asians had the right idea about making use of buckwheat down to the hull. They leave nothing to waste, harvesting the groat to turn into flour and collecting the hulls to turn into pillow stuffing. The benefits buckwheat pillows provide are suitable in the current narrative: the average American losing sleep, gaining weight, suffering from body pain, and living in an era of climate change.
But this doesn’t imply that buckwheat pillows are a cure-all—nothing is. They’re part of a bigger plan to make the world a healthier place, physically and environmentally. Imagine what a hundred dollars or so can get you: a proper bedtime, fewer trips to the hospital, less need for medicine, and a pillow that’ll keep you company for years. It’s more of a steal than a bargain.
Consider lying your head on a buckwheat pillow at your next bedtime. It might require you to get used to its firmness and rustling at first, but after that, it’s smooth sailing until the morning.